Tate: Caroline´s Illini legacy on the board

Tate: Caroline´s Illini legacy on the board

J.C. Caroline drives from Champaign to Urbana, passing within eyesight of Memorial Stadium every workday. But the former Illini and Bears great hasn''t seen his large, illuminated picture connected to the new stadium videoboard. Nor is he exactly sure when he will.
On Sundays, church comes first, Caroline said. I played 10 years of Sunday football and I appreciate the game, but I don''t worship football. I''ve rearranged my priorities. Even if the game started at 1:30, it would still be hard.
Don''t worry. Caroline will attend several Bears games this season. If he isn''t in a hurry, it''s just part of his relaxed, low-profile lifestyle. Unbelievably, J.C. will turn 70 in January. Less than a year later, we''ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of a bust-out 41-20 rout of Ohio State that led to a 1,256-yard season and a Big Ten co-championship. It is now 39 years since Caroline and the Bears intercepted five Y.A. Tittle passes to hand George Halas his final NFL championship in 1963.
There are tinges of gray in that dark hair, but Caroline looks trim and muscular. At 205, he''s only about 10 pounds over his pro playing weight.
I don''t work out, and I haven''t played golf for a few years, he said. I don''t go out much. I''ve never been a person to change my environment. I''ve lived in the same house since 1970. I eat the same things over and over.
Caroline still teaches physical education at Urbana Middle School, remaining in the system 19 years after his five-year stint as Urbana football coach. He said he has no thought of retiring.

The right direction
A member of the College Hall of Fame and a former Pro Bowler (last Bears salary: $23,000), Caroline originally enrolled at the UI on the recommendation of friends and businessmen in South Carolina, where the state university was segregated in 1952.
My high school, George Rogers, was right on the university campus, and I couldn''t go there, said Caroline, a prep sensation with some 50 career TDs. I didn''t know anything about Illinois. I thought the university was in Chicago. I took a train to Cincinnati, and then I came to Tolono and took a bus in.
All freshmen were ineligible in those days. When his time came, Caroline made the biggest splash ever by a first-year UI player. He led the nation – the nation – in rushing and, as a virtual unknown, finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting even as he nearly doubled the rushing output of the 1953 winner, John Lattner of Notre Dame.

Looking back
Illini regrets? There were several.
Caroline thought a 7-1-1 Illini team deserved to go to the Rose Bowl after tying Michigan State for the 1953 title, but the Spartans were riding a high wave of sentiment, were undefeated national champs in 1951 and 1952 and were in their first year in the Big Ten. They got the vote.
Then came 1954, when Illinois couldn''t replace its departed linemen and finished 1-8.
And, finally, came 1955 when Caroline suffered the greatest setback of his career: his lost senior year. If he is not talkative on other subjects, this one sets him off. Scheduled to be the UI''s first black captain, he relates his version of the half-century-old story as though it was yesterday.
It was one of those situations where the head of the physiology department wanted to get back at the football program because he couldn''t get a seat on the 50-yard line, Caroline said. He took it out on the team.
I had a C in the course, and I passed the final. He wasn''t even the teacher, but he came in and changed the grade on his way to Germany. Out of the first 50 papers graded, 30 flunked, so they stopped right there and started going over the papers.
When the professor returned, Caroline said his grade was changed to passing, but he already had departed for Canada, where he played professionally for one season before joining the Bears.
Years later, Caroline completed his degree at Florida A&M and became an assistant on the UI staffs led by Jim Valek and Bob Blackman. Dropped by Gary Moeller in 1977, Caroline said: Moeller felt I had too much influence with the players and didn''t want to compete with that.
Thus ended Caroline''s UI career. But, hopefully, he''ll get back there soon to see the memorial of himself. He''s right up there with Halas, Grange and Butkus ... mighty good company.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

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